- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2002

Is the name John De Forest familiar to you? I think it unlikely, unless you, like I, happened upon it by chance while perusing a rack of Penguin Classics. De Forest is the author of the oddly and rather clumsily titled "Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty."
According to Gary Scharnhorst, an English professor whose first-rate introduction graces the Penguin edition, De Forest's book was one of the first and still is one of the best works of fiction written about the Civil War. William Dean Howells wrote that it displayed "an advanced realism before realism was known by that name." And he deemed it "one of the best American novels" ever written.
Everyone, of course, knows and admires Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage," but Crane had not even been born when the Civil War came to an end. De Forest, on the other hand, saw extensive active service as a captain in the 12th Connecticut Regimental Volunteers in the battles of Georgia Landing and Bisland. He also participated in the siege of Port Hudson in Louisiana in 1862-63 and, in 1864, he saw action in Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan's Shenandoah Valley campaign in Virginia.
As Mr. Scharnhorst notes, De Forest was indeed an unusual figure among men of his generation, being both a professional writer and a genuine man of action. It is worth noting that such contemporaries as Walt Whitman, Howells, Henry James, Bret Harte and Mark Twain (who had a two-week stint in a Confederate militia unit) largely avoided military service during the Civil War. After De Forest's death at the age of 80, his tombstone was engraved with a crossed pen and sword.
Born the son of a paper and textile manufacturer some 10 miles from New Haven, De Forest was reared by an intensely pious mother. A sister-in-law described him at the age of 20 as "one of the most truly godly men I have ever known." A bout of typhoid fever kept him from enrolling in Yale and left him with a weakened and fragile constitution. He traveled to Syria for his health early in 1859 and spent the next four years pretty much as a dilettante in England, France, Germany and Italy, becoming fluent in French and Italian.
His knack for languages stood him in good stead when it came to writing his Civil War novel. In it, De Forest was able to express daring thoughts in French that he couldn't have in English without risking censure from the genteel literary critics and publishers of the day.
Howells, then the highly influential editor of the Boston-based Atlantic Monthly, always supported "Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty," as well as other works by De Forest. In his column in Harper's, as late as 1887, Howells wrote that even when "put by the side of Tolstoy's War and Peace, it is an admirable novel and spacious enough for the vast drama glimpsed in it." Henry James, reviewing it for The Nation, wholeheartedly praised De Forest's "excellent description of campaigning in the terrible swamps and forests of Louisiana and in the trenches at Port Hudson."
The plot line is fairly simple. Lillie Ravenel, a pretty fair-haired young thing has come north from New Orleans to an imaginary state rather like De Forest's native Connecticut together with her father, a worthy doctor and geologist who supports the Union. Lillie harbors rebel sympathies up North. The Ravenels make the acquaintance of young Edward Colburne who immediately, if ever so discreetly, is smitten with Lillie's charms if not her politics.
Enter Col. John Carter, a Virginia gentleman and West Point graduate. Carter is a dandy literary creation, even if De Forest at his publisher's request had to smooth down some of the colonel's rougher, more realistic edges vis-a-vis drinking, profanity and taste for the ladies. Henry James apparently was much impressed by Col. Carter, declaring him "well-depicted; daguerreotyped from nature."
Lillie is much taken with the dashing colonel. She and her father are forced to return to New Orleans, where the father has financial investments to watch over. The colonel and his regiment, which now includes young Colburne, are posted to Louisiana.
Lillie has an aunt, an elegant Creole, quite a vivid personage in her own right, and not at all the sort of lady you would expect to encounter in a proper 19th-century novel destined for reading by well bred young women. She and Col. Carter have a liaison and a fairly steamy one at that, even though by now Carter has married Lillie, who is expecting his child. The liaison is carried on largely in French. In between the courtship of Lillie, the passionate affair of the colonel and Madame Larue, there are political intrigues and powerfully vivid battle scenes, as well as descriptions of field hospitals the graphic realism of which was not to be equaled by any writer in English until the next century.
Why didn't the novel get the readership it merited in its day? Readers in those times were principally female, and realistic battle descriptions were clearly not to the taste of women accustomed to domestic or sentimental romances written more often than not by, as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it, the "damned mob of scribbling women."
Happily thanks to Mr. Scharnhorst and his colleagues at Penguin, readers have now may discover at last a far too long neglected work. Reading the scenes on the battlefields of North and South and encountering Col. Carter and Madame Larue may give one an odd, eerie sense of having suddenly stepped back in a time machine. It is a curiously exhilarating and refreshing experience.

Cynthia Grenier writes The Mag Trade column for The Washington Times.

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